Kaufman: Deep Drive Across the Northern Tier

I’ve since taken the “border crossing" back into Minnesota. Though my city is doing well, much of the Gopher State, especially the tumultuous Twin Cities, may as well be another country.

GLENDIVE, Mont.— I’ve traveled a lot the past decade; in 2017, for example, I logged over 130 nights in hotels. Many of these sojourns occurred by car in rural America, especially across the Dakotas and Montana. 

Coronavirus shutdowns slowed me this “lost spring” so my last trip was four months ago in this same windswept northern region. It was 30 degrees below zero then; this week was almost 120 degrees warmer. 

North Dakotans “feed and fuel the world.” They love farming, freedom, and it turns out, law enforcement. Last month, a Grand Forks police officer was tragically killed. This didn’t make national news, but Cody Holte’s funeral drew several thousand people, including the state’s governor and U.S. senators. Holte’s colleague recently told me: 

“Words cannot describe the outpouring of support we receive in North Dakota from the community. Every overpass in the 50-mile procession route was packed with citizens and first responders. In the caravan to the funeral, people pulled over, got out of their vehicles, and put their hand over their heart or stood on the overpasses with flags. It was beyond words.”

President Trump won the Peace Garden State by 35 points, and since there’s a non-competitive gubernatorial race , a popular congressman set to win easily, and no senate race this year, let’s move west to Montana, where the Treasure State’s politics are more complicated

Trump triumphed here by over 20 points in 2016 but Democrats have held the governor’s office for 15 years, and November is a toss up.

Democrat Jon Tester has been senator more than a decade, and only two Republicans in a century have occupied that seat. The junior spot, currently held by first-term Republican Steve Daines, will also be close.

Current Governor Steve Bullock, who briefly ran for president in 2019, decided to run for U.S. Senate. His commercials seemed everywhere, mostly stressing experience and bipartisanship. Daines focused on China, “putting the American economy first“ with “more jobs, less government” as his pitch.

Look at a Montana map, and you’ll notice a resemblance to Colorado. Many left-leaning coastal transplants inhabit wealthy mountain locales in western Montana (I even heard a New York accent on local talk radio) and especially college towns like Missoula. They form the lone five counties — out of 56 — Hillary Clinton won, but they add up. Tester captured only a dozen counties in 2018 but it was good enough to win by four points.

Montana’s eastern portion is more desolate, working class, values energy production like in neighboring North Dakota, and leans right. As with past electoral writing, I made convivial chatter with diverse folks to understand the state of play.

Hiking south of Bozeman one morning, a middle-aged man asked me where I was from. Answering “Minnesota” made him smirk, and we talked cautiously about the Jacob Frey/George Floyd fiasco and execrable Ilhan Omar.

He said fellow businessmen “fear Democrats” but his daughter, a pharmacy student at Montana State University, “fears Trump.” A Pennsylvania transplant, the gentleman seemed confident in Daines as well as Greg Gianforte triumphing in the gubernatorial race over Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney, a Montana politician for over four decades. Clinton won by fewer than 500 votes four years ago in Gallatin County, which stretches to the gates of Yellowstone National Park.  

Meeting with a blue-collar client in Laurel, a railroad town of 6,500 outside Billings, presented another type of Trump supporter: the union man. This late 20s fellow is a registered Democrat and voted for Tester two years ago but likes the president. 

“Trump respects law enforcement, the founding fathers, gets things done for working people and pushes back against PC nonsense,” he said. I also saw a “defend the police” sticker on his car. 

Out in the Bitterroot Valley near the Idaho border, I came upon a rancher and his retired teacher wife in the charming town of Darby. Despite being “very conservative,” he didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 but plans to this fall. He likes the president’s bluntness and how “he sees the world in black and white, because society has become grey on important issues.” As a veteran, his major issue is national security and he’s disappointed in some of the president’s “isolationist crap and silly tweets.” His wife pulled the lever for Clinton and will for Biden, but is also irked by “the crazies in the streets, yelling at police.” 

Thursday night, I struck up a conversation with a guy on a Harley at a Miles City diner, toward the state’s eastern tip. During a diatribe, he said “People can’t separate fact from fiction so they run around with blinders. Trump speaks the truth. He’s not perfect but look at chaos around America’s cities. Think Biden can fix it?” Clinton got only 22% in the area and even fewer as you go into western North Dakota. 

Overall, it was a pleasant escape to a region with 10 p.m. daylight, sans lockdowns, riot concerns, political acrimony and other divisive tomfoolery. As of this writing, Montana has fewer coronavirus cases in America and only 22 deaths, while North Dakota has 78. I can report that no one I met, irrespective of political leanings, was keen on recent anti-police mayhem, lawlessness, and monument desecration

I’ve since taken the “border crossing” back into Minnesota. Though my city is doing well, much of the Gopher State, especially the tumultuous Twin Cities, may as well be another country.